All happy families are happy in the same way, Tolstoy wrote, but every unhappy one is unique in its misery. Poke around in the high canopy of the family tree, and you see that unique as unhappiness may be –– still, patterns emerge. Familiar patterns even.
Abandonments and early deaths, illness and poverty, and of course, like smoke seeping from under the rafters, scandal.
Like this one:
My gr-gr-grandfather Newton had a bunch of siblings. I don't know much about them. It's a long time ago, and over years of research, I hadn't located half of their graves in our tiny farming hometown. But sometimes you return over and over to a stubborn nut, giving it the odd yank, and it will loosen.
One of those siblings was Cornelia Jane Newton. Born in 1837 in Dimock, Pennsylvania (about 15 miles from where I was myself born a few years later), she was buried in Nebraska in 1912.
First, okay –– Nebraska? That's worth thinking about.
Turns out she married late (at 34) to Joseph Blanding Sturdevant (another long-rooted family from that corner of Pennsylvania) and the two moved West with a group of like-minded Methodists in the early 1870s.. She and Joe had four kids (a son died at 14), and at the end of her 75 years, she was living with her daughter, Sarah Lorena Chittick.
Cornelia Jane's obituary paints a certain kind of picture of the former schoolteacher: "If sometimes in the stress of life's conflicts, the battle pressed sore, faith, courage and Christian fortitude enabled her to bear up."
So, not an easy life for Cornelia Jane, born in Dimock, died in Nebraska.
Joseph and his new bride Rosella exchanged vows in Pennsylvania and then moved to the teeming metropolis of Kansas City.
It's easy to imagine Rosella as the youthful replacement wife, possibly a hussy, and that Joseph was more than a little bit of a creeper, but that's simply too easy a story. No matter how often it happens in real life.
Like they say, when the answer is too obvious, look closer: as I compare birthdates, I see that Cornelia is 12 years Joe's senior. When they first married, he was 22 to her 34. She was a school teacher. Oh lawsie, I wonder if she was his school teacher.
Turning the tables on who's the creeper, maybe.
The imagination boggles. To divorce in 1880, and then –– a period of seeming quiescence, where Cornelia and Joseph both lived in the same small Nebraska town? Then for him to marry Rosella?
What truth could match these data points? Did somebody have a breakdown? Perhaps Rosella was the original object. Perhaps Joseph just liked the family. Perhaps Cornelia organized the hand-off. Perhaps there was a lengthy epistolary courtship with letters coming in the mail. Perhaps one or the other was merely a marriage of convenience.
I can see the new couple moving away from Nebraska. After all, Cornelia lived there, as did another older Newton sister, Catherine (and I wonder what she thought about all this), but why Kansas City?
And, finally, how would a researcher ever know? Rosella and Joseph had no children (Or did they? Joseph's youngest is named Rose Ellen, born in 1879. Though a dozen documents say otherwise, one outlying reference lists her as the daughter of Rosella, and that she was born in Pennsylvania, not Nebraska). But again, if the children were Cornelia's, the surviving generations necessarily favor Cornelia's side of the drama.
It's possible that there was no drama.
Except seriously, what happened?
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